Los Alamos National Laboratory

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February 2012

Lab Equipment and Personnel Help Explore Mars

While most of us still had Thanksgiving leftovers chilling in our refrigerators, hundreds of scientists and engineers watched anxiously as a rocket loaded with a payload of scientific instruments began its journey to Mars. Among those researchers were some from LANL who, along with their French colleagues, must now wait until early August to see how well their equipment fares in the hostile environment of the red planet. The Lab led development of one and contributed expertise to creating another of the 10 exploratory devices installed on a rover that will roam the Mars surface. The rover, named “Curiosity,” also includes a Lab-provided plutonium-based source that will help supply power and keep it at operational temperatures. The purpose of this mission to Mars is to “explore and quantitatively assess a local region on Mars' surface as a potential habitat for life, past or present.” This work will take place during the course of one Mars year (687 days), or to those of us here on earth, approximately two earth years.  

On November 26, the National Aeronautic and Space Administration’s (NASA) Mars Science Laboratory began its nine-month journey to the surface of Mars. Such a launch must take place during a narrow timeframe to take advantage of the shortest distance between the Earth and Mars (approximately 354 million miles), something that happens only every two years. Once the rover has reached the planet and is ready to begin work, ChemCam and CheMin will help collect valuable data.

ChemCam: This equipment, mounted on a mast on Curiosity, is designed to look for elements such as hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, which are critical for life. The system relies on technology, developed primarily at Los Alamos, called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy. During use, a laser can direct the light equivalent of one million light bulbs onto an area the size of a pin. The blast, which lasts less than five billionths of a second, turns a tiny part of rock into plasma (an electrically charged gas). The plasma can then be read by a spectrometer, which can analyze the chemical makeup of the rock based on the light emitted by the plasma. Since ChemCam can read the entire visible spectrum, as well infrared and ultraviolet light, it will be able to detect any element on the periodic table of elements. Additional advantages of this laser instrument include the capability to remove dust from a rock’s surface (Mars is very dusty) to ensure sampling of the rock itself, as well as its ability to sample surfaces up to 23 feet from the rover. It is expected that ChemCam will be able to take an average of six to seven samples a day. The equipment was developed in conjunction with the French government and its Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie. Los Alamos is the lead institution on this instrument under its Principle Investigator (PI), Roger Wiens.

ChemMin: This equipment will enable physical collection of samples dropped into a funnel on the rover for exposure to X-ray diffraction and X-ray fluorescence. The resulting mineralogical analysis will provide information on the identity and quantities of minerals in sediment, even if the samples contain numerous minerals. This will allow researchers back on earth to determine the sample’s geological origins and history. This mission is the first time an X-ray diffraction instrument has been sent to another planet. David Vaniman from LANL’s Earth and Environmental Sciences Division is the deputy PI of this instrument, which was built at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The rover will go about its programmed routine each day, sending the information collected to earth prior to going to sleep each night. The information will take from between three to 20 minutes to arrive at Earth (depending on how far the two planets are from each other at the time). Thus, during the Mars night, scientists will review and quality-check the data and determine what moves should be programmed into the rover for the next day’s work. While working through the night wouldn’t be many people’s first choice, the situation is more complicated than that. The Mars day (called a sol) is 24 hours and 39 minutes long. Sounds pretty close to our own doesn’t it? The problem is that each day the workers’ day will start 39 minutes later. While moving the start of the day from 8:00 a.m. to 8:39 a.m. doesn’t sound so bad, over time it shifts to late afternoon, then to early evening, them to the middle of the night, and gradually works its way back again to early morning, even while all your friends and loved ones remain on a 24-hour cycle. The rover team plans to operate on Mars time at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California for the first three months of the mission. After that, the instrument teams will go back to their home institutions and return to a 9 to 5 schedule, skipping a few sols or programming two sols at a time when the Earth and Mars clocks don’t mesh well.

This work provides an opportunity to learn more about Mars, and the mission’s web pages contain educational resources for students, educators, and the curious. Educators will find curriculum supplements for students in grades four through 12 and a host of other resources, and students can play games like deciding which would be the best 10 things to take into space. (Hint: Barbells could help keep you strong except that in space they’d be weightless, so they’d be less helpful than here on Earth.) Lab scientists will also have some opportunities to talk about their work on this project to interested students in the region, so if you’d like to take advantage of this unique opportunity, please contact the Community Programs Office at education@lanl.gov or call (505) 665-4400.

The rover is currently slated to land on Mars on August 5. To keep up to date on what’s happening, go to http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/.

For information on ChemCam, go to http://www.msl-chemcam.com/.
For NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory pages, go to http://marsprogram.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/.

For information on Gale Canyon, where the rover will land, go to http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/msl/multimedia/pia14295b.html .
You can even follow the rover on twitter, as it keeps you updated on its progress in the first person, at http://twitter.com/MarsCuriosity.

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